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The bipartisan war on intellectual freedom and debate

Ordinarily it might be cause for celebration in our polarized country that the left and right have found common ground on an important issue. Instead, it’s cause for alarm because both, for entirely different reasons, have declared war on the free expression of ideas when the ideas are not to their liking. The last time this happened on a national scale was in the McCarthy era.  

On the left, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently invited scientist Dorian Abbot, whose field is climate change, to lecture. He was then disinvited because faculty members and graduate students were angry that Abbot had previously criticized aspects of affirmative action and diversity programs. Even if he had not been disinvited, Abbot’s lecture might have been disrupted. A study found that one-fifth of college undergraduates believe it is appropriate to use physical force to silence a speaker who makes “offensive or hurtful” remarks. Democrats, by a wide margin over Republicans (62 percent to 39 percent), believe in shouting over controversial speakers so they cannot be heard.

On the right, Glenn Youngkin, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Virginia, prominently ran an advertisement featuring a mother (a Republican activist) who aggressively campaigned to have Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, banned from her son’s high school English curriculum. Her reason was that it contained “explicit” content. 

Texas Republican state legislator Matt Krause, who chairs the state House Committee on General Investigating, has drawn up a list of 850 books that could “make students feel discomfort” and demanded that the Texas Education Agency disclose which school districts have copies of any of these books. His list includes Williams Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” about a slave rebellion, which also won a Pulitzer Prize. 

To conservatives, book banning represents a political opportunity. Krause is running in the Republican primary for Texas attorney general. And while Youngkin’s ad did not specifically mention banning “Beloved,” the ad still placed someone who tried to do just that at the center of his gubernatorial campaign.  

Of course, any high school student has easy access to explicit online videos that are far more horrific than anything in “Beloved” and without any redeeming artistic or historical value, which did not seem to concern the Youngkin campaign as much as Morrison’s novel. 

As to progressives, a combination of political correctness and mindlessness appears to be at work. A Williams College professor who expressed anger at M.I.T.’s invitation to Dr. Abbot told a New York Times reporter that “this idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.” In other words, the merits of the long-standing tradition of vigorous intellectual discussion and disagreement in colleges and universities should be determined by the skin color of the authors of that tradition. Really? 

Under the right’s standards, American history could be largely reduced to tales of rugged individualism that tamed a continent without much said about the enslavement of human beings and the subjugation of Native Americans, because those events are too explicit and might make students feels discomfort. Under the left’s standards, university classrooms could end up with as much intellectual debate as a 1950s sitcom.

Who will speak in defense of unfettered debate and free expression? On the conservative side, no one, apparently. Republicans certainly have not risen to defend “Beloved” as the great, important work that it is. In fact, Republican-controlled state legislatures have proposed or enacted laws that, sometimes under the guise of banning critical race theory from curricula, forbid or restrict the teaching of divisive topics on race and inequality.  

By contrast, some progressives have spoken out, but not enough to make a difference. Robert P. George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, called M.I.T.’s behavior “disgraceful” and invited Dr. Abbot to speak at Princeton. Cornell West, a professor of public philosophy at Harvard University, criticized Howard University’s decision to dissolve its classics department, because it did not meet “the future needs” of students and the “wider society,” a “spiritual catastrophe.” 

If the left and right are even partly successful in their war on expression and debate, it will be a spiritual catastrophe on a national scale.  

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor in the Carter and Reagan administrations, where he was a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team that convicted a U.S. senator and six congressmen of bribery. He is a long-time human rights activist and author of the historical novel, “Two Men Before the Storm: Arba Crane’s Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started The Civil War.” Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.

Tags academic free speech Book bans Dorian Abbot free speech on campus Glenn Youngkin

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